Google to governments: Update your data laws

Seeking guidance in the complex arena of digital evidence management, Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker proposed a new legal framework for cloud technology.
Pixabay -- CC0 Public Domain

Alphabet Inc.’s Google emphasized their desire for reforms of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) along with other international data access laws, asking U.S. and foreign lawmakers Thursday to take another look at the current framework that governs when governments can access digital evidence stored on a commercial database.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Google’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker reaffirmed Google’s belief that reforms are necessary to improve the current rules that today compel cloud data storage companies to occasionally hand over customer information to investigators.

Walker focused his speech and responses on the “untenable” position Google has to adequately support domestic and foreign digital evidence requests while also respecting and upholding privacy rights, due process and human rights worldwide.

“Existing laws governing digital evidence just haven’t kept up with these technological changes, and often they simply don’t work. They don’t allow for Democratic governments to investigate crimes, they don’t adequately protect users’ legitimate privacy rights and they leave service providers caught between conflicting legal regimes.” said Walker.


Many of the problems surrounding the current system stem from ECPA being over three decades old. The law governs the requests for content that Google and other American ISP’s often receive, with as many as 45,000 requests to Google in the latter part of 2016. Seventy percent of those requests came from foreign governments.

“As a result of ECPA, foreign countries often have to rely on the MLAT agreements, the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties, to obtain content that’s held by a company in the United States or any other third country.” said Walker.

The delays in information access due to ECPA’s outdated standards, then, according to Walker, are not only harming foreign government investigations,  but U.S. law enforcement as well.

Walker lamented the 2016 Second Circuit ruling that stated ECPA search warrants cannot compel U.S. search providers to disclose user data stored outside the country as an example of the arcane and inefficient systems Google and other private sector companies must navigate in order to comply with U.S. law.

Walker referenced the Department of Justice, U.S. judges and others in the private sector as proponents of ECPA reforms.


Walker then announced Google’s intention of supporting a new framework for digital evidence access, a framework that must “strengthen global privacy and due process standards around the world, and second, countries need to be able to investigate serious crimes and access digital evidence in a timely manner ways that respect human rights.”

Ultimately, Google and other companies within the sector are simply looking for guidance when dealing with the ever-increasing importance of digital evidence across the world.

“We need international agreements to lay out the rules of the road to deal with what is not a hypothetical problem,” said Walker. “We are dealing with tens of thousands of these requests every year, and we’re just one of the companies wrestling with this. We do need an international agreed upon framework to move forward in a reliable way that people can have confidence in.”

“We stand ready to work with regulators, legislators, civil society, academics and other companies to make sure that we get this right.”

Ryan Johnston

Written by Ryan Johnston

Ryan Johnston is a staff reporter for StateScoop, covering the intersection of local government and emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence and 5G.

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